Supreme Court Strikes Out KBR

The U.S. Supreme Court came out in favor of contractor accountability this week, rejecting attempts by KBR and its former parent company, Halliburton, to dismiss three lawsuits accusing them of harming service members and civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. (KBR, one of the largest reconstruction and logistics contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, was part of Halliburton until 2007.)

The Supreme Court, which denied the companies’ petitions without comment, left intact lower court rulings allowing these lawsuits to proceed to trial:

Metzgar v. KBR

Dozens of U.S. military personnel and civilian employees claim they suffered harm as a result of KBR’s waste disposal and water treatment practices on military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. The case involves KBR’s Logistics Civil Augmentation Program (LOGCAP) III contract. The plaintiffs allege that the company burned large quantities of solid waste in toxin-spewing open-air burn pits and provided contaminated water.

Harris v. KBR

Cheryl Harris seeks to hold KBR and Halliburton accountable for the death of her son, Staff Sergeant Ryan Maseth, who was electrocuted in 2008 while showering at his base in Iraq. KBR’s responsibility for maintaining the shower facilities was also part of the LOGCAP III contract.

McManaway v. KBR

American and British soldiers allege KBR knowingly exposed them to the hazardous chemical sodium dichromate while they were posted at the Qarmat Ali water treatment facility in Iraq in 2003. The soldiers were protecting KBR employees who were restoring the facility. This case involves the Restore Iraqi Oil (RIO) contract, which contained a provision requiring the government to indemnify KBR for any property damage, injury, or death occurring on the contract and all related legal expenses. The government is refusing to indemnify KBR for Qarmat Ali litigation, which has already resulted in an $81 million judgment against the company in a case filed in Oregon. Both the indemnification decision and the Oregon judgment are still mired in appeals, despite Congress urging the Pentagon last year to “take control of the litigation process” and hasten its conclusion.

“With KBR’s immunity petitions rejected by the Supreme Court in three separate cases, the wait for the veterans’ cases to proceed to trial has finally ended,” attorney Michael Doyle, who represents the plaintiffs in in the Metzgar and McManaway cases, told the Project On Government Oversight. “There can’t be a place in American law for blanket immunity for military contractor misconduct harming our troops and others, and we look forward to the next trial soon.”

The plaintiffs are suing the contractors because the government is generally immune from personal injury lawsuits. Contingency operation contractors like KBR and Halliburton argue they are also immune because they function essentially as an extension of the military. Ever since the first bombs fell on Afghanistan more than 13 years ago, contractor civil and criminal liability in war zones has been a hotly debated and litigated issue. However, recent decisions by the Supreme Court and the federal circuit courts give us hope that this area of law is becoming more settled and contractor accountability cases will have an easier time getting to trial.